U.S. activists decry first known wrongful arrest blamed on face recognition

by Reuters
Wednesday, 24 June 2020 19:11 GMT

Police officers walk past a surveillance camera in central Moscow, Russia January 26, 2020. Picture taken January 26, 2020. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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Officers released Robert Williams after acknowledging "the computer" must have been wrong after he spent over a day in custody

By Paresh Dave

OAKLAND, Calif., June 24 (Reuters) - An incorrect facial recognition match led to the first known wrongful arrest in the United States based on the increasingly used technology, civil liberties activists alleged in a complaint to Detroit police on Wednesday.

Robert Williams spent over a day in custody in January after face recognition software connected his driver's license photo to surveillance video of someone shoplifting, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU) said in the complaint. In a video shared by the ACLU, Williams says officers released him after acknowledging "the computer" must have been wrong.

Detroit authorities drew help from the Michigan State Police force, which told Reuters that a face matching service from Rank One Computing had identified Williams among possible leads.

Separate guidelines from Michigan State Police and Rank One say a facial recognition result should not be used as the basis for an arrest. Police lacked corroborating evidence before arresting Williams, who is Black, in front of his wife and their daughters, ages 2 and 5, Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy said.

"This case should not have been issued based on the (police) investigation, and for that we apologize," Worthy said in a statement, adding "this does not in any way make up for the hours that Mr. Williams spent in jail."

Her office said it did not know whether police investigators involved in Williams' case had been sanctioned.

Detroit police and Rank One did not respond to requests for comment, but the police department now limits facial recognition use to violent crimes and home invasions.

The ACLU complaint requests Detroit police stop using facial recognition altogether "as the facts of Mr. Williams' case prove both that the technology is flawed and that investigators are not competent in making use of such technology."

Williams' arrest concerned five watches totaling $3,800 taken from a Shinola store in October 2018.

Police have used facial recognition in convictions, but activists contend greater precautions are needed to mitigate against issues such as mismatches related to Black individuals.

Rank One in a blog post last year described such concerns as "misconceptions," citing U.S. government research about the high accuracy of top systems.

Microsoft Corp and Amazon.com Inc halted facial recognition sales to police this month following nationwide protests that have demanded an end to law enforcement tactics that unfairly target African Americans and other minorities.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Additional reporting by Jeffrey Dastin; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Howard Goller and Tom Brown)

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